State Department Criticizes Kuwait for Discrimination against Bedoon

[Excerpts from State Department’s annual report on the status of Human Rights in Kuwait. Read the full summary here]

Kuwait is a constitutional, hereditary emirate ruled by the al-Sabah family. The July 27 parliamentary elections were generally free and fair, although some opposition groups boycotted. Authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Security forces occasionally committed human rights abuses. Principal human rights problems included limitations on citizens’ right to change their government; restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly, especially among foreign workers and stateless Arabs (called “Bidoon”); trafficking in persons within the foreign worker population, especially in the domestic and unskilled service sectors; and limitations on workers’ rights.

Other human rights problems included reports of security force members abusing prisoners and protestors; arbitrary arrest and extrajudicial deportation of foreign workers; limitations on freedoms of press, association, and religion; and restrictions on freedom of movement for certain groups, including foreign workers and Bidoon. Women, Bidoon, and noncitizens faced social and legal discrimination. Domestic violence against women remained persistent.  The government took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in the government. Impunity was sometimes a problem in corruption cases.
a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press “in accordance with the conditions and in the circumstances defined by law.” The government sometimes did not respect these rights.

Freedom of Speech: The government restricted freedom of speech, particularly in instances purportedly related to national security. The law also specifically prohibits material insulting Islam, the emir, the constitution, or the neutrality of the courts or Public Prosecutor’s Office. The law mandates jail terms for anyone who “defames religion,” and any Muslim citizen or resident may file criminal charges against a person the complainant believes has defamed Islam. Any citizen may file charges against anyone the citizen believes has defamed the ruling family or harmed public morals.

In December the Constitutional Court upheld the constitutionality of the law that criminalizes slander of the emir.

After a political opposition leader’s April conviction for defaming the emir, the government interrogated at least 35 citizens, including journalists and former members of parliament (MPs), for repeating the politician’s 2012 speech criticizing the emir. Several of those individuals faced defamation charges themselves. On November 10 and 12, the criminal court began hearing the cases in two groupings. The accused admitted repeating the speech, but denied defaming the emir. In both instances the court adjourned the case until December, and lifted the travel bans imposed on the defendants from the first group.

On March 15, the Court of Appeals affirmed law professor Obeid al-Wasmi’s acquittal of charges of infringing in 2010 upon the emir’s authority.

Press Freedoms: All print media were privately owned, although their independence was limited. They exhibited diversity of opinion but self-censored to avoid criminal charges or fines, or to keep their licenses. Restrictions on freedom of speech also applied to the press. Discussions of specific social topics, such as the role of women in society and sexual problems, sometimes were self-censored. The law allows for large fines and up to 10 years in prison for persons who use any means (including media) to subvert the emiri system of government. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry may ban any media organization at the request of the Ministry of Information. Newspaper publishers must obtain an operating license from the Ministry of Information.

Broadcast media are a mix of government and privately owned stations, subject to the same laws as print media.

In January the government closed Scope TV for two months and charged four of the station’s staff for a program considered insulting to the Mutairi tribe. The court levied fines of KD 1,000 ($3,510) on each of the four defendants.

Before the annual international book fair held from Nov 21-30, the Ministry of Information added additional books to the thousands of titles already banned.

Violence and Harassment: The government sometimes harassed and prosecuted journalists for their reporting.

In March the Ministry of Information warned media outlets not to publish or broadcast news or information about the emir without prior written approval from the emir’s office. On May 19, the editors in chief of the Al-Jarida and Al-Seyassah newspapers were fined 5,000 ($17,550) and KD 10,000 ($35,100) respectively for publishing details of a meeting between the emir and some former parliamentarians, without prior approval.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Ministry of Information censored all books, commercial films, periodicals, videotapes, CDs, DVDs, and other imported materials deemed illegal per the guidelines enumerated for speech and press. Authorities censored most English-language educational materials that dealt with the Holocaust or referred to Israel to remove such references, although these topics were not censored in the news media. Widely available satellite dishes allowed unfiltered media access.

In October 2012 the Ministry of Information reportedly seized transmission devices owned by Mubasher Television and closed the station’s headquarters. The station reportedly operated without the proper authorization; it remained closed during the year.

Libel Laws/National Security: Throughout the year the government restricted media freedom based on libel laws or national security grounds.

The law forbids publication or transmission of any information deemed subversive to the constitutional system on national security grounds. Although the government continued to enforce a 2010 ban on publishing details of an investigation into an alleged Iranian spy network, media outlets continued to report on the final court judgments issued during the year for some defendants.

On March 20, the Court of Appeals extended the sentence of Badr al-Rasheedi from two years in prison to the maximum term of five years. A lower court had convicted al-Rasheedi in November 2012 of using his Twitter account to call for the overthrow of the regime; spreading false news abroad; undermining the emir’s status and powers; defaming the emir; and other charges. The prosecution appealed the lower court’s verdict, which it deemed too lenient. On July 30, the emir pardoned al-Rasheedi and nine others; authorities released him from prison on Aug 6.

Internet Freedom

The government monitored Internet communications, such as blogs and discussion groups, for defamation and security reasons. The Ministry of Communications continued to block websites considered to “incite terrorism and instability” and required internet service providers to block websites that “violate (the country’s) customs and traditions,” in addition to political sites that the government found offensive. The government prosecuted and punished individuals for the expression of political or religious views via the internet, including by e-mail and social media, based on existing laws related to libel and national security. There were reports the government attempted to collect personally identifiable information in connection with individuals’ peaceful expressions of political, religious, or ideological opinion or beliefs. Authorities required internet cafe owners to obtain the names and civil identification numbers of customers and to submit the information to the Ministry of Communications upon request.

Open Net Initiative, an internet freedom watchdog organization, ranked the country among the world’s most internet-controlling countries, citing pervasive repression of internet freedoms by the government. Although the organization noted that local media are among the most outspoken regionally, it criticized the government’s filtering of the internet to block pornography primarily, as well as gay and lesbian material, some secular sites, sites critical of Islam, and others carrying content on religious faiths other than Islam.

The government arrested at least a dozen persons for Twitter posts it deemed to be defaming to the emir. In adjudicating cases during the year, as well as similar pending cases from 2012, the courts imposed prison sentences ranging from a few months to 11 years; over 50 cases were pending as of December. Other defendants and convicts included opposition figures and former MPs.

On July 30, the Amir pardoned 10 individuals convicted of defaming him, including Saqer Al-Hashash, Sara Al-Darees, and Rashid Al-Enezi. Of those pardoned authorities released all but three (who had other court cases pending against them) on Aug 6.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

The law provides for freedom of opinion and research, but self-censorship limited academic freedom, and the law prohibits academics from criticizing the emir or Islam.

The Ministry of Interior reserved the right to approve or reject annual public events, and it rejected those it considered politically or morally inappropriate.

On June 5, officials from the Ministry of Information forced the closure of a book store for selling John Milton’s Paradise Lost, a banned book. The government imposed a travel ban on the owner pending trial.

Throughout the year the Ministry of Information banned more than a dozen books and at least 46 films.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

Freedom of Assembly

The constitution provides for freedom of assembly, but the government restricted this right. Noncitizens are prohibited by law from demonstrating or protesting.

Political oppositionists organized several protests and rallies throughout the year. Security officials allowed many peaceful protests to proceed without permits, but intervened to disperse some demonstrations that were unauthorized. Citing public safety and traffic concerns, officials sometimes also restricted the location of planned protests to designated public spaces. Courts tried and sentenced dozens of participants in unlicensed demonstrations to as much as one year in prison for their involvement. The government also deported several noncitizens who participated in demonstrations. In August the government deported nine Egyptians for participating in rallies in front of the Egyptian Embassy.

On Jan 7, police used nonlethal means, including tear gas, percussion grenades, rubber bullets, and smoke bombs to end a peaceful but unlicensed political opposition march to protest the previous December’s parliamentary elections. Police arrested as many as 60 protesters, including several former MPs. Video footage showed police beating one protester, Salem al-Rujaib. The government did not charge or discipline the officers involved.

In some cases security forces claimed they required force because protesters were violent and set fire to cars while rioting. Human rights groups widely criticized security forces for using excessive force to disperse protestors.

On March 25, authorities released Abdulhakeem Al-Fadhli, a prominent Bidoon organizer who was convicted in absentia in 2012 for allegedly assaulting a police officer and sentenced to two years in prison. Al-Fadhli, who was held for 103 days, carried out a lengthy hunger strike to protest his treatment while incarcerated.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted this right. The law prohibits officially licensed groups from engaging in political activities.

The government uses its power to license associations as a means of political control. There were approximately 100 officially licensed NGOs in the country, including a bar association, other professional groups, and scientific bodies. Dozens of unlicensed civic groups, clubs, and unofficial NGOs had no legal status. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor rejected some license requests, contending established NGOs already provided services similar to those the petitioners proposed. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor can also reject an NGO’s application if it deems the NGO does not provide a public service. Members of licensed NGOs must obtain permission from the ministry to attend international conferences as official representatives of their organization.

In May the government attempted to prevent an unlicensed Bidoon rights organization, Group 29, from holding a conference on statelessness. A licensed organization, the Kuwait Graduates Society, assumed responsibility for the conference; the Ministry of Interior later formally admonished the society for its actions.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/j/drl/irf/rpt/.

d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons

The constitution generally provides for freedom of movement within the country, but numerous laws constrain foreign travel, and the government placed some limits on freedom of in-country movement. The government was generally uncooperative with most efforts by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations to protect and assist refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Foreign Travel: Women and Bidoon (stateless persons and foreign workers) faced problems with or restrictions on foreign travel. A husband may still request that immigration authorities prevent his wife’s departure from the country for up to 24 hours, after which he may obtain a court-ordered travel ban. The government restricted the ability of some Bidoon to travel abroad by not issuing travel documents, although it permitted some Bidoon to travel to Saudi Arabia for the annual hajj and continued to issue “Article 17” passports (temporary travel documents that do not confer nationality) for Bidoon.

The law also permits travel bans on citizens and nonnationals accused or suspected of violating the law, including nonpayment of debts, and it allows other citizens to petition authorities to impose one. This provision resulted in delays and difficulties for citizens and foreigners leaving the country.

Citizenship: The government cannot revoke the citizenship of an individual who is born a citizen, unless that individual has obtained a second nationality, which is against the law. Nevertheless, the government can revoke the citizenship of naturalized citizens for cause, including a felony conviction, and subsequently deport them. During the year the government revoked the citizenship of some dual nationals and their children and attempted to compel others to give up their second nationality. A 1982 amendment to the Nationality Law prohibits the granting of citizenship to non-Muslims, but allows Christian male citizens to transmit citizenship to their descendents.

Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status. There is no system for providing protection to refugees, and the government did not grant refugee status or asylum during the year. According to the UNHCR, during the year there were more than 2,100 registered asylum seekers and recognized refugees were in the country. Most of these were from Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Iran.

Refoulement: Immigration regulations prohibit local integration for asylum seekers. Nevertheless, the government provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. The constitution prohibits the extradition of political refugees, and the government did not extradite any political refugees during the year.

Stateless Persons

According to the law, children derive citizenship solely from the father; children born to citizen mothers and nonnational fathers do not inherit citizenship. The law further fails to provide nonnationals, including Bidoon, a clear or defined opportunity to gain nationality. Female citizens may sponsor their nonnational children (regardless of age) and husbands for residency permits and may petition for naturalization for their children if the mother becomes divorced or widowed from a noncitizen husband.

On March 11, security forces used nonlethal means, including rubber bullets and tear gas, to disperse an unlicensed but peaceful gathering of Bidoon demonstrators protesting the government’s decision not to extend them greater rights. HRW criticized the government for denying the stateless population the rights of peaceful expression and assembly.

According to the minister of interior, approximately 3,200 Kuwaiti women were married to Bidoon men. A report by the Women’s Refugee Commission estimated that 30,000 Bidoon were spouses or children of female Kuwaiti nationals.

The judicial system does not have the authority to rule on matters of citizenship, leaving Bidoon with no access to the judiciary to present evidence and plead their case for citizenship. Although the exact number of Bidoon residents was unknown, in November the minister of interior reported to the National Assembly that there were more than 111,000 Bidoon in the country. The UNHCR estimated that the total Bidoon population was between 93,000 and 120,000, while NGOs such as Refugees International estimated the total to be as high as 140,000.

The government continued to discriminate against Bidoon in some areas. Some Bidoon and international NGOs reported that the government did not uniformly implement a 2011 decree approving provision of some government services and subsidies, including education, employment, medical care, and the issuance of civil documents, such as birth and death certificates, to Bidoon. They claimed many Bidoon families were still unable to obtain birth certificates for their children, which restricted the children’s ability to obtain government-issued identification cards, access adequate medical care, and attend school. Many adult Bidoon also lacked identification cards, preventing them from engaging in lawful employment or obtaining travel documents. This restriction resulted in many Bidoon children working as street vendors to help support their families. Lack of financial resources and proper documentation for some of their children forced some Bidoon parents to choose which of their children to enroll in school. Of those Bidoon children who attended school, many were enrolled in substandard private schools because only citizens may attend public school. Many Bidoon families depended on charity to assist with medical and educational expenses.

The government allowed Bidoon to work in some government positions, and some Bidoon worked in the armed forces or police. Although no legal strictures prevent their service in the enlisted ranks, authorities have effectively barred the Bidoon from enlisting in either force since 1985. In November, however, pursuant to an emiri instruction, the Defense Ministry began accepting applications to join the army from children of Bidoon veterans who were killed in combat.

Although the government began the process of granting citizenship to approximately 500 Bidoon during the year, unspecified administrative complications delayed that process. The executive Bidoon authority had more than 100,000 Bidoon citizenship requests under review at year’s end. Many Bidoon were unable to provide documentation proving sufficient ties to the country or to present evidence of their original nationality. The government maintained, however, that the vast majority of Bidoon concealed their true nationalities and were not actually stateless.

The government instituted other policies that discriminate against the Bidoon, including requesting that the Central Bank of Kuwait freeze bank accounts of Bidoon with expired identification cards. Since the government treats them as foreigners, Bidoon do not have property rights. Bidoon identification cards included color codes that indicated when the carrier has a security restriction. The Women’s Refugee Commission reported that statelessness and discrimination against women in the nationality law threatened family unity.

 

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